WMD Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation (ECHO) Proposers Day

Image Credit: DARPA

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Biological Technologies Office (BTO) is sponsoring a Proposers Day in support of the Epigenetic CHaracterization and Observation (ECHO) program.

The Proposers Day will be held on Friday February 23, 2018 at the ECC in Arlington, VA. Advanced registration is required.

The ECHO program aims to build a field-deployable platform technology that quickly reads someone’s epigenome and identifies signatures that indicate whether that person has ever—in his or her lifetime—been exposed to materials that could be associated with weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The epigenome is biology’s record keeper. Though DNA does not change over a single lifetime, a person’s environment may leave marks on the DNA that modify how that individual’s genes are expressed. This is one way that people can adapt and survive in changing conditions, and the epigenome is the combination of all of these modifications. Though modifications can register within seconds to minutes, they imprint the epigenome for decades, leaving a time-stamped biography of an individual’s exposures that is difficult to deliberately alter.

Whereas current forensic and diagnostic screening technologies only detect the immediate presence of contaminants, the envisioned ECHO technology would read someone’s epigenome from a biological sample, such as a finger prick or nasal swab, to reveal possible exposure to WMD or WMD precursors, even when other physical evidence has been erased.

“The human body registers exposures and logs them in the epigenome,” explained Eric Van Gieson, the ECHO program manager. “We are just beginning to understand this rich biographical record that we carry around with us. We hope that with the capabilities developed within ECHO, someone in the field will immediately know if a suspected adversary has handled or been exposed to threat agents. The same technology could also serve as a diagnostic tool for our own troops, to diagnose infectious disease or reveal exposure to threat agents, so that medical countermeasures can be applied in time to make a difference.”

Researchers on the four-year ECHO program will have two primary challenges: to identify and discriminate epigenetic signatures created by exposure to threat agents; and to create technology that performs highly specific forensic and diagnostic analyses to reveal the exact type and time of exposure.

To develop this capability, researchers will have to assemble a foundational training dataset of pre- and post-exposure epigenetic readouts in biological samples. They will also have to create a device capable of performing multiple molecular analyses and onboard bioinformatics in 30 minutes or less, compared to an average of two days using current lab-centered processes. By the end of the effort, DARPA’s goal is to deliver ECHO capability in a man-portable device that can be used by an operator with minimal training.

Success in this program will require groundbreaking approaches to characterize epigenetic signatures from WMD exposure events, and new bioinformatics tools to perform forensic analysis and disease diagnostics with high sensitivity, specificity and temporal resolution. Proposing teams should be multidisciplinary with expertise in WMD threat agents, chromatin biology, epigenetics, gene expression, bioinformatics, microfluidics, next generation sequencing, forensics, circulating biomarker discovery, point-of-care diagnostic device development, infectious disease surveillance, and computational modeling. Proposing teams are strongly encouraged to include expertise across these fields, as well as with industry partners that can develop commercial applications based on outputs of the ECHO program.

Interested attendees are invited to present a brief one-slide PowerPoint summary of their interests and capabilities. These will be presented during 3-minute “lightning” presentations at Proposers Day. Presentations consisting of multiple slides will not be granted a time slot. Attendees may also choose to present a poster describing their research interests that will be available for viewing and interaction for the duration of Proposers Day – those interested may submit both a lightning talk and a poster. Lightning talk and/or poster submissions will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis until time constraints (lightning talks) or physical capacity (posters) is reached. Lightning talk submissions are restricted to those attending the physical meeting.

Further details are available via Solicitation Number: DARPA-SN-18-23.

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